WILMINGTON – From a very early age, Kathleen Furey McDonough knew that she wanted to be a lawyer.
[caption id="attachment_225781" align="alignright" width="367"] Potter Anderson & Corroon Chair Kathleen Furey McDonough | PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARDDUBROFF/FINALFOCUS[/caption]
“Because I liked to argue all the time, my mother called me Portia after the character in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” she recalled. Born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, McDonough was the second of three daughters to a single mom. Her grandmother lived with them, keeping three generations of strong women in the household, which would shape her life.“Everything I’ve learned about getting along with people I learned from my family,” she recalled with a laugh.With limited financial support, McDonough commuted to St. Joseph’s University and worked through college while earning her bachelor's degree. Upon graduation, she attended law school at Temple University at night and worked as a paralegal in Conrail’s legal department during the day.After earning her law degree, McDonough said her mother was proud that she finished her goal, but was more relieved that it meant her daughter would have stability in her life.“She was always very focused on having a good, steady job. It was that generation where you went to work somewhere, and you stayed there for a career. She was at Fox Chase Cancer Center for over 30 years when she retired and then kept working there one day a week until she was 74 years old,” McDonough said.As she began looking for her first career home as a lawyer in 1985, McDonough entertained a few offers from Philadelphia firms, but felt drawn to a smaller, older firm in Wilmington: Potter Anderson & Corroon. The oldest and one of the largest firms in Delaware, Potter Anderson was still small compared to many other metropolitan firms, with about 30 to 40 lawyers compared to about 150 at the time, she said.“It had a diverse practice offering and very solid, long-term client relationships,” McDonough said, noting that back then new associates could work in a variety of the firm’s practices as they decided their specialties.She spent nearly two years working in both litigation and municipal bond contract law, before deciding to put her stake down in the former.“I realized my natural skills were more suited for litigation. It could be that I never got over my love of arguing,” she said.When she began practicing in the mid-1980s, McDonough was still just one of a handful of female lawyers in firms around the city. She bonded quickly with colleagues Mary Copper, who would become Potter Anderson’s first female partner, and Laurie Silber Silverstein, who today is chief judge of the state’s federal bankruptcy court.“We were a pretty tight knit group. We were all friends, and we tried to be there for each other,” McDonough said.Like others, she experienced the casual sexism of the time – older male lawyers who wrongly assumed she was a paralegal – but three decades later, McDonough has witnessed women quickly approaching parity in the workforce.“It's heartening, but I by no means think that we can sort of rest on our laurels and say ‘Alright, my work here is done,’” she added.Early in her career, McDonough made a fateful choice when asked to work on similar cases at the firm involving employee discrimination. As she took on more of these cases, she became the go-to litigator at the firm, and then “Congress contributed mightily to my career path,” she said.“The WARN Act, the Drug-Free Workplace Act, the ADA, the FMLA, the amendments to the ADA, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 – none of this existed when I first started doing this work,” she explained, noting that she became a student of learning the ins-and-outs of the new regulations. “All of our clients were desperate to learn about them… and so I think we were able as a firm to show value right from the outset.”In becoming one of Delaware’s most sought-after labor attorneys, McDonough advanced up Potter Anderson’s ladder as well to partner and later its executive committee. In 2016, her colleagues turned to her to lead the historic firm, becoming its first female chair on Jan. 1, 2018.“Being the chair wasn't something that I sought. It was quite unexpected,” she recalled. “But we had a year to prepare as I was the incoming chair and I benefitted from having really great committees to work with.”McDonough said she leaned on those firm leaders, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as attorneys moved remote and have now returned to their downtown Wilmington offices in a hybrid work schedule. Potter Anderson is preparing for its 200th anniversary in 2026, which McDonough said she expects to reach with a firm that is continuing to grow revenue and headcount.With more than 90 lawyers currently, the firm will likely pass the century mark before its grand celebration. McDonough, who has stayed at Potter Anderson since joining 37 years ago and never seriously considered leaving, said her goal continues to be making the firm one that attracted her all that time ago.
“I want Potter Anderson to be the kind of place that I wouldn't leave and never for a moment regretted coming to,” she said.